NEW YORK — Jordan Belfort was such a magnetic personality and mesmerizing raconteur that “The Wolf of Wall Street” screenwriter Terence Winter admits that even he might have gotten seduced by the swindling stockbroker back when Winter was working on Wall Street in the late 1980s.
“I have to be honest, had I met Jordan back then, I don’t know that I wouldn’t have gone to work with him,” Winter says during a recent interview at a Manhattan hotel, with Central Park visible through the window behind him. “He was a hustler as a kid, and I was also that way. I really wanted to make a lot of money”— not unlike the scores of young brokers who supposedly flooded into the offices of Belfort’s corrupt brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont in the days after a notorious 1991 Forbes article made Belfort and his cronies into folk heroes to a generation of Gordon Gekko wannabes.
Belfort, the man at the center of Martin Scorsese’s new film “The Wolf of Wall Street,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was the kind of figure that Winter, 53, knew well — and one that he could identify with, at least in part. They both were kids who grew up in working-class outer-borough neighborhoods (Belfort in Queens, Winter in Brooklyn).
“Jordan and I have very similar backgrounds. We’re roughly the same age, even though he looks 15 years younger,” Winter says. “So I just understood him immediately.”
Winter drew on his own memories of working on Wall Street in adapting Belfort’s outlandish 2007 memoir, which chronicles his rise from aggressive, penny-stock pusher to expert stock swindler whose illegal activities helped land himself, his cohorts, and even shoe icon Steve Madden in prison.
“I was there in the Ivan Boesky go-go ’80s years. A lot of cocaine. A lot of borderline insanity,” Winter said. “I worked for Merrill Lynch, which was a very big conservative company in comparison. But it was excessive in terms of money. Million dollar bonuses. Everybody had custom-made suits and Ferraris and vacation homes in the Hamptons. . . . I was in the legal department. But I certainly wanted to be those guys!”
The film’s gaudy, adrenaline-fueled excesses are relentless. “Wolf” comes at you like a freight train, with a manic Belfort snorting mountains of cocaine off scantily-clad prostitutes, delivering brain-rattling, General Patton-like motivational speeches to his amped-up followers, and swindling millions of dollars out of unsuspecting victims. He crashes his helicopter on his front lawn, capsizes his yacht after forcing the captain to sail into a huge storm, holds dwarf-tossing contests at the office, and, in one comically disturbing sequence, attempts to race home in his Lamborghini while hopped up on Quaaludes that have fried all his motor skills.
“I started reading a couple of pages, and I couldn’t put it down,” Winter says. “I was just sucked into his story. It was hilariously funny, and it almost read like fiction. . . . I couldn’t believe that it was a true story about a person who was actually still alive at the end of it.”
Indeed, the seductive allure of the debauched high life is part of the movie’s tractor beam-like pull. The characters may be morally compromised, even repugnant, but viewers may still be seduced by the money, the lifestyle, and the eagerness to believe what Belfort is selling.
“It was a conscious choice to not show the people on the other side of that phone. By design, you the viewer are taking the place of the people being duped by what these guys are doing and being seduced by them,” Winter says. “You’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, he’s so funny, he’s so charming.’ And you’re laughing and laughing. Every once in a while in the movie, you’ll hit a speed-bump and things will take a dark turn. Then before you know it, it’s onto another party. But by the end of it, you’re sort of realizing, ‘Oh my God, I fell for it. I’ve fallen for these guys who are doing horrible things. These are bad people.’”
To capture the memoir’s giddy highs and disastrous lows, Winter decided to preserve Belfort’s funny, often over-the-top commentary using a first-person voice-over throughout the film.
“So much of the charm and the fun of the book was Jordan’s asides and observations. For instance, his descriptions of the three types of hookers or the various phases of his high. And those things really don’t lend themselves to dialogue.”
Still, he was sensitive to the fact that Scorsese had used first-person voice-over to bravura effect in other crime films like “Casino” (1995) and the iconic “GoodFellas” (1990). But the director gave him the green light.
“He said, ‘Yeah, let’s make this a companion piece, basically. This is the Wall Street version of ‘GoodFellas,’ ” says Winter.
As in those earlier Scorsese films, there’s a danger of glorifying these depraved people or turning them into celebrities. As an executive producer and writer for “The Sopranos” and creator of the Atlantic City-set gangster drama “Boardwalk Empire,” it’s a criticism Winter has heard before.
“I think our responsibility as storytellers is to just tell the story and let the audience make up their minds,” he says. “There will be people who will glorify Jordan and his actions and say, ‘I want to be like this guy. I want to learn how to do what he did. How do I get the Ferrari and that blonde? I know he went to jail and did these horrible things. But I won’t be like that.’ That’s what people will see sometimes. And of course they’re fooling themselves.”
Despite the film’s epic scale and big themes, its late-breaking entry in the year’s awards races may have slowed its momentum going into the Oscars. The film wasn’t ready for screening until early December, so it was shut out of the major critics groups’ prizes (it did pocket several Golden Globe nods). The Boston Society of Film Critics said that the sole local screening came too late for many reviewers to attend, so “Wolf” came in second to “12 Years a Slave” in the voting for best picture and other major categories.
“At a certain point,” Winter says, “the machine of presenting this thing takes over, and I just do my job and hope for the best.”
Having DiCaprio as his star won’t hurt.
His electrifying performance is being called one of the best of his career, and the actor hasn’t been shy in talking about the film’s parallels to the greed, excess, and hubris that helped cause the financial crash of 2008.
“Some of my favorite films have been a reflection of the darker side of human nature,” DiCaprio said. “I wanted to do a film that was a depiction of the times that we live in, a facet of who we are today.”
To many observers, Belfort epitomizes everything that was bad about deregulated Wall Street and capitalism run amok. But in writing the screenplay, Winter realized that Belfort and his cronies weren’t the fat cats whose high-stakes gambling helped bring the economy to its knees in 2008. “These were the street urchins, guys from the underworld that were trying to create a little island and emulate Gordon Gekko,” Winter says. “They were trying to be like the guys who were really robbing the country of billions of dollars.”